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Sunday 16 December 2018

Authors and the Death Penalty Dilemma

The Golden Age
Authors and the Death Penalty Dilemma
  by Carol Westron

There are many factors that contributed to the blossoming of detective fiction in the Golden Age: the new forensic discoveries; the passion for crosswords and other puzzles; the poverty and despair following the Great War that built a new desire for escapist literature and the growing ability for women to have a successful and lucrative writing career. It was only when I started to write detective fiction set in Victorian times that I realised the impact that the death penalty had on many crime writers, especially in the resolution of their novels, the fate of their villains and the shame suffered by innocent suspects and those close to the murderer. In this article I will explore the influence that the death penalty had on the work of a few authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and their contemporaries. I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum but there may be some – my apologies.

Some prominent writers, most notably Dickens and Thackeray, expressed concerns about the brutalising effect on society of public hangings. After the abolition of public executions in 1868, there was less clamour to abolish the death penalty, although a strong feeling against it remained. However, in the early 1950s there were several contentious hangings for murder: Timothy Evans, wrongly hanged for a crime committed by John Christie; Derek Bentley, a young man with a learning disability who had not fired the lethal shot; and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK. In 1957 a Homicide Act was passed that retained the Death Penalty only for murder while committing a robbery or for killing a policeman. In 1965, the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for an initial five-year period and was made permanent in 1969.

However, for many Golden Age writers, it was an earlier execution that hung heavily on their minds. Edith Thompson was hanged in 1923 after she was convicted of conspiring to murder her husband with her young lover, Frederick Bywaters, who was also executed. Edith Thompson had written incriminating letters to Bywaters, but there was evidence that she had screamed at Bywaters to stop when he stabbed her husband and Bywaters declared that she had no part in the crime. Nevertheless, Edith Thompson was also tried for murder. During the trial, the judge frequently referred to Edith Thompson as ‘the adulteress’ and it became clear that she was being tried for her moral misconduct, and for the same reason was condemned to death. The death of Edith Thompson influenced many Golden Age writers, most notably Anthony Berkeley.

For authors of Golden Age detective fiction, the death penalty was the most potent and exciting cliff-hanger. After all, to risk a shameful death was the ultimate gamble. However, the death penalty could also be a stumbling block. The writer had to consider whether their readers would feel comfortable with a character that they had encountered over approximately 200 pages, and had possibly found likeable, being condemned to death by hanging. They would also have to consider the effect this could have upon the reader’s perception of their detectives and the sleuth’s motives. At the same time, justice had to be seen to be done. This could sometimes be a fine line to walk.

In her books, Agatha Christie, the unequalled mistress of the whodunnit, would introduce a group of characters and allow the reader to get to know them in company with her sleuth. This meant that the reader had to face the fact that one of these characters would be on their way to execution by the end of the book. Christie was too good a craftswoman to make all of her murderers unlikeable and, as a conventional Christian and a believer that good should vanquish evil, she knew that murder should not go unpunished. This meant that, on many occasions, she had to find another way of restoring the balance of justice. The answer that Christie employed, on more than one occasion, was the death of the murderer by suicide. It was not unknown for Poirot to turn a blind eye to these murderers choosing their own way out, as in Peril at End House (1932), when he is aware that a friend of the killer has provided a lethal dose of a drug. In Crooked House (1949), the poisoner was, in turn, killed by another person, who at the same time, committed suicide. Another way out of the death penalty dilemma was death of a murderer by accident, as in Cards on the Table (1936), or a declaration that the killer was insane, as in After the Funeral (1953.)

Christie had a keen understanding of the sensibilities of her readers and often the ‘easy way out’ was reserved for females, because, at that time, many people recoiled from the thought of death by hanging for a woman, especially after the real-life execution of Edith Thompson. In Christie’s long writing career, she must also have been aware of the disquiet caused by the death by hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955. Many people believed the sentence was made harsher because of Ellis’ occupation as a night-club hostess and her bright, peroxide blonde hair. Ruth Ellis was the last woman hanged for murder in the UK.

Like Sherlock Holmes before him, Poirot is willing to act as judge and jury, and allow the guilty to escape punishment, as in
Murder on the Orient Express (1934) when he allows the murderers of a truly evil man to go free. Although Poirot declares, ‘“I have always disapproved of murder,”’ (Cards on the Table, 1936) this position is not unimpeachable, and he commits murder in his last adventure, Curtain, (published in 1975), when he knows that he is too old and frail to stop a very dangerous man from destroying his best friend.

Both Poirot and Miss Marple, Christie’s principal detectives, are both portrayed as ‘agents of justice.’ In her posthumously published autobiography Christie explains her reason for writing crime fiction: ‘The detective story was the story of the chase; it was also very much a story with a moral; in fact it was the old Everyman Morality Tale, the hunting down of evil and the triumph of Good.’ (Agatha Christie An Autobiography, 1977.) Miss Marple is increasingly likened to Nemesis and, in the novel Nemesis (1971), the Bible is quoted with regard to Miss Marple’s mission, ‘Let justice roll down like waters, / And righteousness like an everlasting stream.’ Like Poirot, Miss Marple is not afraid to turn a blind eye, while a killer takes their own way out, but, in some cases, she is more vehement in her support of the death penalty. In The 4.50 From Paddington (1957), written just after the Homicide Act was passed, Miss Marple regrets that, ‘“I am really very, very sorry that they have abolished capital punishment because I do feel that if there is anyone who ought to hang, it’s...”’

The spotlight that focused on Christie after her disappearance when she was a young woman made her acutely conscious of the agony of being unjustly pilloried and she used this several times in her plots, with innocent people being suspected, accused and even convicted of murder: Ordeal by Innocence (1958), Towards Zero (1944), Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), The Sittaford Mystery (1931), The ABC Murders (1936) all feature an innocent person accused of murder and the detective’s attempts to exonerate them. In Five Little Pigs (1942), Poirot undertakes a retrospective investigation at the request of a young woman whose mother was hanged for murdering her husband, the girl’s father. It is a fascinating study of an investigation conducted only by interviews with the people connected with the case at the time and, when the true murderer is revealed, Poirot has to admit that there is not enough evidence to convict. However, he intends to make sure the murderer does not escape from the court of public opinion.

In Nemesis (1971), Miss Marple is placed in a similar position regarding retrospective evidence when she is commissioned by the late Jason Rafiel to discover whether his son, Michael, is really guilty of murdering his
girlfriend, Verity. Michael was convicted of the crime but was not executed and has been in prison for ten years. In this novel, Christie raises the question of the effect on a person who is imprisoned, possibly for life. The same question is asked in Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver novel,
The Case is Closed (1937), where Geoffrey Grey has been imprisoned for the murder of his uncle. This book also explores the effect of such a conviction upon the accused person’s family. His wife, Marion, lost the baby she was expecting and has had to return to her modelling career to survive, but she is forced to use another name in her professional life so that the shame does not tarnish her employer. Here Marion is speaking of a visit to Geoffrey in prison, ‘“... we’re not together. I can’t get near him – I can’t touch him – they won’t let me touch him, they won’t let me kiss him. If I could put my arms round him I could call him back. He’s going away from me all the time – dying away from me – and I can’t do anything about it... Think of him coming out after twenty years, quite dead.”’

Like Miss Marple, Patricia Wentworth’s series detective, Miss Silver, never appears to have doubts about the righteousness of her actions. Miss Silver is a private investigator who always warns her clients that she will serve the cause of truth and justice even if the result of her investigation is not what they desire. In the earlier books, Detective Sergeant Abbot, who frequently works with Miss Silver, occasionally expresses the wish that the murderer of a particularly unpleasant victim should not be punished, but he is always firmly rebuked by his superior, Detective Chief Inspector Lamb. Wentworth’s books always bring the murderer to justice but sometimes the killer escapes execution by dying in an accident, as in The Listening Eye (1955), or, quite frequently, by being declared insane as in The Chinese Shawl (1943) and Poison in the Pen (1955.)

Christie is very aware that it is not only the murderer who suffers when the truth is revealed. Those close to the killer also suffer, but this collateral damage cannot always be avoided, although it may be minimised when the
killer takes their own way out. It is even worse when the next generation suffers, as in
Five Little Pigs (1942) and Poirot's other purely retrospective investigation, Elephants Can Remember (1972.)

It is interesting to note that, because Christie’s main murder victims are often unlikeable, it is often not the murder of the prime target that moves the story from a simple puzzle and rouses the reader’s desire for justice, it is the destruction of innocent bystanders or witnesses. In Murder at the Vicarage (1930), Dr Haydock, previously a firm opponent of the death penalty, is outraged when an innocent and vulnerable man is targetted by the killer in an attempt to divert suspicion. ‘“Haydock’s views appeared to have undergone complete transformation. He would, I think, have liked ...’s head on a charger. It was not, I imagine, the murder of Colonel Protheroe that so stirred his rancour. It was the assault on the unlucky Hawes. “The damned scoundrel! That poor devil Hawes. He’s got a mother and a sister too. The stigma of being the mother and sister of a murderer would have rested on them for life and think of their mental anguish. Of all the cowardly dastardly tricks! … The fellow’s not fit to live.” Christie has been quoted as saying, Too much mercy often results in further crimes which are fatal to victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.’ Although Christie puts the case for abolishing the death penalty in the words of the likeable and honest Dr Haydock, she does make his arguments so excessive that they are rather ridiculous, especially as she has him change his mind when the victim is somebody he pities. It seems probable that Christie’s own opinion of the death penalty coincided with that of Miss Marple: ‘“I do not like evil beings who do evil things.”’

As a rule, Christie is successful in walking the tightrope of the reader’s desire for punishment of the killer and their instinctive revulsion of execution by hanging, as is another prolific writer of the time, Ngaio Marsh, who often spared her murderers the noose. Marsh had quite a few killers who were declared insane at the conclusion of the novel, as in Overture to Death (1939), A Surfeit of Lamphreys (1940) and Singing in the Shrouds (1958). Presumably these killers were not hanged but instead were incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane. However, Marsh does not downplay the terrible effect that this has on the families of the murderers and shows that the shame of having a family member tried and found to have committed murder but being declared ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ may be as great or greater than having a relation executed.

As a professional policeman, Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn rarely has doubts about the justice of his actions although he sometimes feels regret at the unpleasantness and distress that follows a successful investigation. Only once does Alleyn fail to pursue a case to its conclusion. In When in Rome (1970) Alleyn has no police jurisdiction and very little evidence. Although he comes to his own conclusions regarding the death of a victim who is also a murderer and blackmailer, he has no regrets that these will not be acted upon. ‘By and large, he thought to himself, that was the nicest murderer I have met.’

A fictional detective who is constantly doubtful of his right to discover the evidence that sends people to the gallows is Lord Peter Wimsey, Dorothy L. Sayers’ archetypal amateur sleuth. From his first appearance in Whose Body (1923) Wimsey enjoys the excitement of the chase, although not the hard work, which he leaves to his friend Detective Inspector Parker. Above all, Wimsey does not like the responsibility of causing a man to be hanged. Wimsey took up detection as a sort of therapy, after suffering from shell shock in the First World War, and the nervous relapse he has in Whose Body is a recurring theme throughout his detective career. In Whose Body Wimsey takes the unprecedented step of deliberately warning a particularly callous murderer of his impending arrest, but, ironically, the killer is so immersed in writing a long letter, detailing the cleverness of his crime, that he fails to commit suicide in time.

Sayers, a High Church Christian and a staunch Conservative, seems to have been in favour of the death penalty, but after Whose Body remarkably few of her murderers make it to the gallows. In one book the death is accidental, in another no death occurs at all, and in another the man who caused the death of another dies a hero, saving others. In two more novels Wimsey takes the ultimate responsibility upon himself and, either directly or indirectly, guides the murderer towards committing suicide. In fact it seems as though Sayers only hangs those murderers that she feels are too hardened in crime or of too lowly birth to understand the concept of ‘noblesse oblige’. However, in Unnatural Death (1927) it is impossible for Wimsey to allow the sociopathic murderer to take ‘the honourable way out’ because she has no intention of killing herself and attempts to kill any potential witnesses to her crimes. However, it seems that Sayers felt uncomfortable about sending a woman to the gallows and had her commit suicide while in prison. This sensitivity is interesting as Mary Whittaker was arguably Sayers’ most callous and vicious criminal. (This is not a spoiler because Unnatural Death is a Howdunnit rather than a Whodunnit.)

Like Christie with Dr Haydock, Sayers also has an ardent opponent of the Death Penalty advance the reasons why it should be abolished. The discussion takes place amongst the dons of Shrewsbury College, the fictional Oxford college in which the action in Gaudy Night (1935) takes place. Gaudy Night is Sayers’ most cerebral Wimsey novel and as in Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, the person advocating the abolition of the Death Penalty is well educated, well-meaning and intelligent, but her arguments are skewed towards the emotional with little understanding of the practicalities of what to do with murderers if you don’t kill them. Wimsey and Harriet Vane are the voices of moderation and reason in the argument, which demonstrates Sayers’ skill in appearing to offer a balanced argument while using her central protagonists to argue the side that she supports.

Another thing that Sayers has in common with Christie is the awareness of the effect that being accused of murder, tried and convicted has on an innocent person. In Strong Poison (1930) Sayers raises the stakes considerably by making the innocent suspect, Harriet Vane, the woman that Wimsey is falling in love with. With this in mind, it is not surprising that, when Wimsey discovers the real murderer, Sayers does not allow him the option of escaping the shame and terror of a trial and execution. From the powerful opening sentence, ‘There were scarlet roses on the bench: they looked like splashes of blood,’ Sayers captures the trauma of being tried for a capital crime. Although she was acquitted and totally vindicated, the shame that Harriet Vane carries with her for years afterwards is also clearly portrayed, culminating in her reluctance to visit her old college for the Gaudy. ‘It was all so long ago; so closely encompassed and complete; so, cut off as if by swords from the bitter years that lay between. Could one face it now? What would those women say to her, to Harriet Vane, who had taken her First in Englishand gone to London to write mystery fiction, to live with a man who was not married to her, and to be tried for his murder amid a roar of notoriety? That was not the kind of career that Shrewsbury expected of its old students.’ … ‘the shadow of the gallows had fallen between her and that sun-drenched quadrangle of grey and green.’   However, it is in this penultimate Wimsey novel, Gaudy Night (1935), that Harriet at last comes to terms with the scar on her reputation and learns to accept without bitterness and false pride the debt that she owes to Wimsey.

In Gaudy Night it becomes clear that Wimsey too has grown in strength, understanding and acceptance of responsibility, and is very different to the young man who enjoyed the investigation of crime as a hobby. It is this new Wimsey who states:
‘“Now we have found common ground to stand on. Establish the facts, no matter what comes of it.”
“On that ground, Lord Peter,” said the Warden, “your inquisitiveness becomes a principle. And a very dangerous one.”’
And when Harriet complains that, ‘“Peter – I feel exactly like Judas.”’ Wimsey replies, ‘“Feeling like Judas is part of the job. No job for a gentleman, I’m afraid.”’

The last full-length Wimsey novel is Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), which was adapted from the stage play by Sayers and Muriel St. Clare Byrne. Sayers acknowledges that in it there was ‘but a ha’porth of detection to an
intolerable amount of saccharine’
but added that the occasion of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane’s union must be the excuse. Wimsey has travelled a long way in personal development and in reclaiming a life damaged by the Great War, but ironically his story turns full-circle when the case ends in an execution and again his nerves give way under the strain. This time, however, he has Harriet to help him recover his equilibrium.

Wimsey is not the only amateur detective to suffer doubts about his position as the shadow of the gallows draws near. Molly Thynne’s erudite amateur detective Doctor Constantine also loathes his hobby when reality intrudes ‘“All the same, whenever you drag me into one of your unsavoury messes there comes a moment when I realise that the problem is not a chess problem after all, and that the pieces are not chessmen, but human beings. I wish, then, that I’d stuck to my own game and left you to play yours.”... Constantine’s elation seemed to have left him, and he sounded tired and disheartened.’ (He Dies and Makes No Sign, 1933.) Detective Inspector Arkwright, the detective whose case Constantine has invaded, has the unenviable task of doing all the tedious work and has to remind Constantine that that the investigation of murder is not a game. In this the relationship between Constantine and Arkwright mirrors that of Wimsey and Parker, although in the case of Wimsey and Parker, their relationship develops into a far more personal bond, especially after Parker marries Wimsey’s sister.

Pandering to the sensitivities of her sleuth, another resemblance between Thynne’s novels and those of her illustrious contemporaries is that often in Thynne’s novels the more sympathetic murderer dies, avoiding the shame of trial and execution and allowing the truth about the crimes to be ‘hushed up.’

Constantine and Wimsey, especially in the latter’s earlier investigations, both suffer from the over-educated and wealthy amateur’s preoccupation regarding their image. It is important to them that they appear civilised and that their reputations remain untarnished. Another amateur detective who was concerned about his reputation is Anthony Berkeley’s Roger Sheringham, a dilettante crime writer, who is preoccupied with being considered clever and popular.

Unlike the other amateur detectives, Sheringham has no qualms about the death penalty because he is totally on the side of the murderer. In Jumping Jenny (1933), the victim is an unpleasant woman and an extremely difficult wife, and Sheringham believes that this is ample justification for her murder and does all he can to conceal the truth, until he is afraid that he himself may be in danger, when he becomes less smug. In Sheringham’s reckoning, the murderer is the a hero and he has no pity for the victim, much less any feeling that they deserve justice. In The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) the murder of an unfortunate woman who received the lethal sweets, possibly by accident, is regarded as merely the basis for an amusing game for a club for eminent people interested in criminology.

It is fortunate that, even if Sheringham had wished to bring murderers to justice, they would have been in little danger, because, in an interesting twist on the normal role of such detectives, Sheringham usually gets it wrong. Most of the time, the cases are solved by the dogged hard work of the police, usually Detective Inspector Moresby, the Scotland Yard detective who shows unbelievable leniency in accepting Sheringham’s intrusion into his cases. However, Berkeley does occasionally reveal a different point of view, as when his other, less frequently used, amateur detective, Mr Chitterwick investigates the murder of an elderly woman in The Piccadilly Murder (1929). Chitterwick shows far more sympathy for the victim, and rather more skill in investigation, than Roger Sheringham ever displays.

A little remembered author who took the attitudes that Berkeley gave Roger Sheringham to even greater extremes was J.C. Lenehan, who not only allows murderers to escape but often has the detectives in charge of the investigation allow them to do so. In The Tunnel Mystery (1929), the victim is a respectable businessman, murdered for profit, and yet Detective Inspector Kilby, the detective in charge of the investigation, admires the murderer, whom he seems to regard as a Robin Hood figure. Kilby is described as a man so honourable that he would not deceive a suspect and yet, at the end of The Silecroft Case (1931), which concludes the story started in The Tunnel Mystery, Kilby and his constable conspire to pervert the course of justice and allow the murderers to go free, without even the fear that their crimes will catch up with them. Lenehan wrote many books, with numerous detective characters, and always shows more empathy for the murderer than for the victim. Indeed, it sometimes seems that his detectives are not seeking out the murderer to send him to the gallows but to congratulate and reward him. 

The Golden Age authors had a mixed range of views regarding the fate of the murderer and the rights of the victims to receive justice and society to dispense it by capital punishment. It cannot be denied that the death penalty had an effect on writers of this time, whether you were like Poirot, and had ‘a thoroughly bourgeois attitude to murder’ or agreed with Mr Shaitana: ‘“Surely, my dear M. Poirot, to do a thing supremely well is a justification! You want, very unimaginatively, to take every murderer, handcuff him, shut him up, and eventually break his neck for him in the early hours of the morning. In my opinion a really successful murderer should be granted a pension out of the public funds and asked out to dinner!”’ (Cards on the Table, 1936.) Of course, as Shaitana was murdered before the end of Chapter Three, it could be argued that Poirot won that discussion.

The books by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh are in print and available as paperbacks and on Kindle.
Many books by Patricia Wentworth have been republished and are also on Kindle but beware if you have read her books before because some have been given new titles and insufficient description.
The books by Molly Thynne have been republished and are available as paperbacks and on Kindle.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley has been republished and is available as a paperback and on Kindle, but the other Berkeley books mentioned are only available second-hand.
                      The books by J.C. Lenehan are available on Kindle.

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
 To read a review of Carol latest book Strangers and Angels click on the title.

1 comment:

  1. This was a wonderful read! Thank you for taking the time to write this out and post it. I came looking for information on how common hangings really were in the 50s after reading murder at the vicarage and have enjoyed your observations far more than I would have enjoyed finding what I was looking for!